For a dedicated set of Star Wars fans like myself, the films do not represent the appeal of the franchise. With Rogue One set in the Expanded Universe, I was wary.
The odds were stacked against Rogue One: A Star Wars Story before the first frame of footage was revealed to the public. This was the film that was poised to wipe away what I most loved about Star Wars.
Let me explain.
For a peculiar and dedicated sub-strata of Star Wars fans, the eight feature films have not always represented the height of the franchise’s appeal. For the determined and the willing, the future adventures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo et al could always continue, thanks to the countless novels, comics and video games that comprised what was officially dubbed: The Star Wars Expanded Universe. Although canonical certainty was never guaranteed, the EU has supported and expanded upon every aspect of George Lucas’ creation, introducing characters, themes and ideas that often pushed the envelope and explored outside the box, whilst always continuing to play by the rules.
My personal favourite chapter of Star Wars is the story of Kyle Katarn. Perhaps you’ve heard of him, perhaps not. Katarn is the protagonist of the EU series, Dark Forces, as well as its follow-up series, Jedi Knight. In a decades-spanning story that took place across five video games, Katarn was transformed from a disillusioned Imperial Officer into a mercenary for hire, only to then discover his innate connection to the force. In the first Dark Forces game, Kyle Katarn was merely a scoundrel. A mercenary. A rogue. An agent hired by the Rebel Alliance for an impossible mission: a risky and elaborate scheme to steal the Death Star plans. Sound familiar?
With limitless potential to cinematically explore any corner of this immense sandbox, was another movie about stopping a doomsday weapon really the best they could come up with?
When Disney announced in 2012 that it has purchased Lucasfilm and planned to commence production on a new series of Star Wars features, I was immediately nervous. It was as though a new Empire had seized control of the galaxy. Without Lucas at the helm, what was considered sacred? Would the new movies play by the same rules? And what was in store for the beloved stories of the Expanded Universe? J.J. Abrams’ Episode VII: The Force Awakens brought the answer: you must unlearn what you have learned. Thanks to Disney’s franchise revival, hundreds of EU stories, including those of Kyle Katarn, had been utterly erased from Star Wars. Suddenly, we were told to ignore so much of what we had loved about this galaxy far, far away.
So, I had a bone to pick with this movie.
Now, petulance aside, we arrive at Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. A movie about an agent hired by the Rebel Alliance for an impossible mission: a risky and elaborate scheme to steal the Death Star plans. Did anyone really ask for this? Is this a story that needed to be told? With limitless potential to cinematically explore any corner of this immense sandbox, was another movie about stopping a doomsday weapon really the best they could come up with? Furthermore, given the swirling rumour mill that has surrounded the post-production of this, the first Star Wars stand-alone effort, did anyone really expect this to be any good?
Turns out…it’s really damn good.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is possibly the best film the franchise has to offer. Sure, none of it works without the original film. And The Empire Strikes Back is still the best sequel of all time. But for Star Wars fans, this is absolute catnip. Rogue One’s bold willingness to tread new thematic and technical ground results in the most unique, audacious and satisfying film in the saga, one that achieves the near-impossible: it’s a blast on its own and it makes the other movies even better.
This is a movie that dares to do new things with Star Wars, devoted to preserving the internal and dramatic consistency of its siblings, whilst being totally unafraid to present us with a story that feels fresh, inventive and invigorating.
Rogue One is a war movie. This is a first for a franchise that has typically played in the realm of fantasy space-opera. But the opportunities that this slight genre-shift allows are liberating, exciting and even a little dangerous. Instead of clearly-cut characters that leave no mystery as to their allegiance or ethical standing, Rogue One’s gallery of misfits represents the most morally shady (not to mention ethnically diverse and expertly cast) roster the franchise has featured thus far. Despite the story’s prequel status, Rogue One manages to avoid the typical pitfalls of other similar efforts by concentrating on characters whose fates are entirely uncertain. Everyone is constantly at risk throughout this story, lending the franchise its most legitimately suspenseful drama in decades, in contrast to the limp and detrimental miscalculations of The Force Awakens. Despite the number of featured characters, each member of the Dirty Dozen-esque band of rebels shown here is rendered in subtle but nonetheless creative and compelling ways. Director Gareth Edwards and his editorial team demonstrate a dedication to letting the characters breath and share in smaller, suggestive moments that go far in allowing us to imagine the scope of their past and the depth of their motivations.
Furthermore, the film enthusiastically embraces all of the seasoned tropes of its adopted genre, showcasing a tense plot filled with military defectors, double-crosses and impossible odds, affording the filmmakers the chance to blend the classic aesthetics of Star Wars with more serious thematic fare, to wonderful effect. This film certainly has more to say than any previous Star Wars film, but its efficiency of story telling allows for everything to move at a brisk and satisfying pace that never feels at odds with its core messages.
Whereas Episode VII solicited groans with its relentless callbacks to previous chapters, Rogue One proves that if you craft a compelling story with engaging, dimensional, motivated characters, your audience will follow you anywhere. This film is genuinely littered with nods and references to the entire Star Wars universe, but rather than come across as hokey or forced, Rogue’s design and execution feels like a sincere attempt to expand and broaden the dimensions of the world(s) it depicts. As a result, Rogue One actually succeeds in enhancing one’s enjoyment of the accompanying films, by allowing a deftly crafted story to provide further context, stakes and meaning to the broader galactic power-play.
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If there are any major downsides to the film, the most popular complaint voiced by general audiences appears to be the film’s reliance on CG-assisted resurrections of beloved characters from the franchise’s past, and there’s some truth to these claims. Likewise, some of the occasional humor beats don’t quite connect, but Alan Tudyk’s hilarious K-2SO is an essential and welcome part of the team.
I could never have predicted that instead of crushing the memory of the Expanded Universe, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story actually does it the highest of honours. This is a movie that dares to do new things with Star Wars. It is utterly devoted to preserving the internal and dramatic consistency of its siblings, whilst being totally unafraid to present us with a story that feels fresh, inventive and invigorating. That’s what the Expanded Universe has always been about: exploring outside the box, whilst playing by the rules. I don’t need Kyle Katarn anymore. This is better.
Turns out, there might be a new hope after all.
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